31 August, 2011

Review: LFD Zero Integrated Mk III LE, Vienna Acoustics Hadyn Grand SE, Leben RS-28

click pics to enlarge. R, LFD on top of Leben and Kondo.

Review: LFD Zero Integrated Mk III LE

Review: Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand SE
Review: Leben RS-28 preamp Part I

Why integrated amp
Of course I am a die-hard fan of tubes, SET and horns, and that will never change. But I have always had a great interest in integrated amps, enough so that I wrote an overview on integrated amps. I am proud to say that that article is still one of the most read in my Blog.

In particular, I direct you to my opening paragraphs there: "...While an integrated amplifier, especially a budget one, is ostensibly a compromise, it takes real judgment and art to achieve a good design, something surprisingly few manufacturers (especially non-UK ones) have managed to do. Provided your speakers are not too difficult for the limited power on hand, a good design can even outperform the same companies' separates in coherence and musicality, if not in power...I have observed that a lot of audiophiles, including many who think of themselves as old-hands, really cannot handle the variables in matching, and do not even know when the system veers alarmingly from the norm. I'd say even if you don't "need" one, it is essential to have one on hand for testing of musical balance, a sort of reality test for audiophiles who love to delude themselves..." Gee, as I re-read what I wrote, I think the words ring as true as ever, if I may say so.

LFD is not even "just" another British integrated. Before the internet information explosion, information on small UK boutique brands were hard to come by. But, more than a decade ago, through occasional articles in the funky and wonderful HiFi World, even HiFi Choice, I had already known about esoteric brands like LFD, DNM etc. I remember reprimanding myself years ago for not seizing on the opportunity to buy a LFD Mistral which had an underground reputation (a 1999 aritcle on TNT by the reliable veteran Werner Ogiers, and another article here). I still nudge myself whenever something reminds me that I had missed the opportunity to buy a funky DNM preamp. The mysterious aura surrounding these companies had faded quite a lot thanks to word of mouth through the internet, but they remain small and interesting companies, auteurs in the world of hifi, if you will.

There is another reason for this exercise. In my living room, where I house my reference system and most other gears, I have long felt the need to have a high quality casual system that would respond quickly to short-term needs. When I know I only have time for a short session, or when I just want some background (maybe CAS would do), I then would not have to turn on all my separates and wait. Let's see, my reference system comprise the transport, Digital lens, DAC, phonoamp, preamp and amp; that is, 5 to turn on for digital replay, 6 for vinyl. Mission accomplished, as you shall see.

LFD Zero Integrated MkIII LE (LFD website)
In recent years, LFD has been popularized by the successful marketing effort of its US dealer, and recently in particular by the enthusiastic
Stereophile 2008 review of MkIII by Sam Tellig. I am not at a fan of Tellig, though I do read what he writes. But remember LFD I had long known about but never had the opportunity to own or even heard one.

I would also urge you to read up on the older version of this model, in particular the TNT 1997 review (by the excellent Werner Ogiers) of the original Zero Integrated LE.

LFD is only rarely sighted in HK. By chance I picked up one second-hand. I decided on it because it has the built-in MM/MC phono section (which I prefer to outboard phono) and the more desirable (to me) and unusual optional corian faceplate.

Of course I immediately opened it up, took the internal pic above, and did the little soldering required to convert the default MM phono to MC. For each channel I bridged 2 pins (lower left; between the IC's) with a small length of solid copper wire.

Components used are reasonable, but not at all extravagant, or unusual (the brand is touted for its supposedly time-consuming component selections). The volume pot looks like the kind of favored by many Japanese designers (and Bews identify himself with them), that is, nothing "special". But this coincides with my experience: many expensive and fancy pots, including many over-built "high-end" resistor and resistor-ladder types, look awesome but sound underwhelming. I think, a good carbon pot remains the one to beat. As for TVC, I think many are much over-rated too.

This "integrated" is in reality an amplifier with a passive volume pot, and a humble one at that, which makes its excellent performance even more hard earned.

The power transformer is reassuringly robust. If I am not mistaken, the small transformer is dedicated for the phono section's power supply, a good idea (looks like the one in the separate LE phonostage, pic at bottom of article).

The output devices are just connected to the chassis underside (feet are not tall either) for heat dissipation; no massive heat-sinks here. A little hard-wiring is used. What caught my eyes the most is the solid-core cable (not usually my favorites) used to deliver power to the +ve speaker binding post (different from the cable used for the -ve/ground).

pic: Note the Haydn Grand SE perched on top of the JBL4312A
First, list of ancillary equipment used this round:

Digital: Revox C221 or Pioneer T-07A or Primare C20
Analogue: Garrard 301 with Ortofon RS-212S and Denon DL-103; stock Ortofon phono cable
Loudspeakers: JBL 4312A or Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand SE

I should not mine words, this is the best integrated amp I have had. The sound is big and bold, confident in its stride (I think I hear a bit of the solid-core cabling here), and masterly in its rhythm and pace. Sound is neither warm nor cool, just right. Although there is plenty of treble air, and the absence of treble haze and roughness of solid state go some way towards the descriptive term "tube-like" used in reviews, the Zero III LE does not quite have the "luxurious" top end that top tube gears do, but it gets close. Considering I am using top-of-the-line preamps from Leben, not to mention Kondo M7, and considering I am using SET amps usually, that is the highest accolade.

The amp runs warm; but you can always spread out your palm on it. It would not need much ventilation or shelf space.

At first I used my other (borrowed) pair of 4312A, not the one shown in the pic. They were placed further upfront, more free-standing than my regular gig shown. As before, in this position, and without aid of a sub woofer, the treble was just a shade prominent. Switching to my pair perched horizontally (a la studio use) the sound became warmer, more textured and listenable. All that is due to speaker placement, not the amp of course.

Now, a detour before more details on the sound.

Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand SE
A couple of years ago, after I read about the second generation Haydn Grand , I was taken by the good looks (especially in rosewood) and intrigued by the placement of the tweeter across the front port (capsular TAS review), so much so that I expressly set out to audition it in NYC. I heard it placed close to the front wall, sub-optimally matched with an NAD integrated, but I could tell that the sound was bold and confident, a little dark on that occasion.

A bit later, the third-generation Symphony Edition (SE) came out, featuring the company's transparent Spider Cone (technology previously used in top models only; see link to brochure above). It is a limited edition, and the wood finish is among the very best I have ever seen. How elegant!

Eventually, later in HK, I got a pair of SE (one of 500 pairs in the world). I had them upfront and freestanding. The sound was incredibly open from day one, but I missed the richness and presence I heard in NYC.

This time, I perched them further back, on top of my 4312A, in the same place as my Tannoy, a higher placement than usual. They were tilted downwards slightly.

The LFD drives the Haydn Grand SE effortlessly. First digital playback. The period performance of Bach had just the right amount of zing to it, but is neither shrill nor "white". The Bavarian orchestra is galvanizing under the great conductor Kubelik, playing with great tonal splendor. The Haydn Grand SE conveys the massive big brass sonority as well as tympani strokes or massed strings, sounding much like larger speakers indeed. Every nuance in Nils Lofgren's guitar can be heard.

Compared to the 4312A, the Haydn Grand SE is more open and carves out a larger sound field and conveys more minutiae, including the live performance clues of the hall and the audience. Surprisingly, the bass performance is superb: the Haydn Grand not only goes as deep as the 12" woofers of the JBL but sounds almost equally weighty in the mid-bass.

Although placed rather high up, the images are not shifted up by that much, attesting to the excellent dispersion of the tweeters. The musicians remain grounded and the feeling of venue and live concert are preserved. When I stand up, the soundstage feels a little more like normal placement, but in terms of tonality and music there would not be much change. In short, the height does not affect sound unduly and it feels real. Mind you, this is the tried-and-true position where I previously placed the Airtight Bonsai to great satisfaction.
Incidentally, the Haydn Grand SE is efficient enough to be used with SET amps! With a 300B amp it ably covers all grounds. Late in this session, I drove them with 2 wpc Elekit 8230 2A3 amp, and they still made great music, though with just a little less impact than 300B in my 200 ft room.

Ultimately, for the LFD, I much preferred the match with Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand SE. The JBL4312A would need even more sophisticated equipment, including a tube preamp, to bring out their best.

LFD as power amp
I connected the same CDP (Primare in this instance) to my Leben RS-28 preamp, which was then connected to the line section of LFD with the regular Gotham GAC-4 that I use for connection to my SET amps. The volume of the LFD was set at maximum.

With CD playback, the sound was a little different, but not as much as I would have expected. In terms of resolution or balance, they were very close. The passive preamp stage of the LFD is perhaps a little more neutral: in the Bach, the quality of gut strings and period playing are slightly truer; ditto the zing of Nils Lofgren's guitar. On the other hand, the tubed Leben renders harmonics and cabinet resonance just a little more: the violins in the Bach has more body (wood); the tympani strokes reveal more skin sound.

I was happy with this result: 1) unlike most passive preamps, the one in the LFD does not compromise dynamics; 2) even compared to a passive preamp, the tubed Leben is utterly neutral and equally revealing. That's double the bounty for me! :-)

LFD as phonoamp
And now onto the phonostage. Using the LFD's own phono section, the sound is every bit as balanced as digital playback; there is absolutely no difference in tonality. Lola Bobesco's warmer violin stands out from the steelier tutti (this is likely an LP from a digital master). Dylan's band pulsates and gyrates. Encouraged by the wonderful performance of the phono section, I decided to the extra mile. I compared the internal phono section of the LFD with the Leben RS-28 full function preamp (full write up pending) in 2 ways:

1) Using the LFD as power amp: To facilitate this, after listening to the 2 LPs shown here, the LFD was then used as a power amp (as above) with the Leben RS-28 as the preamp. As the Leben is only MM, the signal is stepped up by the top-of-the-line Denon AU-1000 step-up transformer (weighing more than lesser tube amps), which is then connected to the Leben's phono input by the best cable that I have, the Kondo KSL-LPz, which costs more than the LFD second-hand (this is how I regularly use Leben when I am not using Kondo).

2) Using the phono section of the LFD via Tape Out, connected by the same Kondo cable to my current tubed rig: The current rig, which I listen regularly before the LFD sessions, consist of the same analogue source listed above, the Leben RS-28 full function preamp, the 2 wpc Elekit 8230 2A3 SET amp, all driving the Tannoy Canterbury. Considering the rig has recently been matched with ICL and Audio Note Kit phonoamps (write-up later), the LFD has strong competition.

While the LFD phono section has the advantage of a much shorter signal path, the Denon/Leben setup has probably even better impedance matching and tube in the MM stage (my prefernce usually).

The results were close, but easier to tell this time. Like my assessment of the preamp section of the LFD above, in terms of resolution or balance, they were very close. With the Leben, the strings are a little sweeter and the various instruments in Dylan's band have more presence. Overall I'd give the nod to the Leben setup, but the LFD is impressive on its own.

I am also glad for the results. Inevitably the system with Vienna Acoustics sounds smaller and less full bodied, but the balance and tonality of the music are similar enough and close to neutrality in my book.

A few words on the LFD Zero Mk IV LE (pic below from the internet)
The Mk III has recently been replaced by the Mk IV. I don't really know about the sonic differences; no reviewer, certainly not Tellig, is ever going to say the old one is better, right? But, they did say it is largely the same amplifier, now housed in a more robust, but smaller chassis. Oh, the phono option is gone; the IV's smaller chassis has no room. That means you have to buy their separate phonoamp.

I managed to source an internal pic of the Mk IV (below) from a Danish site. If you compare the line section, things are virtually identical, except: 1) 2 of the caps have changed from red (Wima) to blue (?type, I wager still Wima); 2) the short coiled cable run downstream look identical, but are now red; 3) most noticeably, the cables used to connect the output devices to the speaker binding posts have changed: the +ve is now a flat cable of some kind and the -ve became the same solid core used previously for the +ve! I would venture these changes above anything else (not that anything is noticeable) made the sound different. I wager, maybe silver cable for the +ve? It is too bad their website has no pics for their cables!

A few words on the LFD
Phonostage LE (pic below from Stereophile)
The current LFD Phonstage LE was reviewed favorably by Art Dudley in Stereophile. The pic below is from Stereophile, and the LE is shown on the left. If you compare the transformer and the phono board with the pic of the Zero III I took, as well as other pics of the phono section of the earlier Mistral, you shall see that, no matter the generation, the boards are almost identical.

IMHO, the III, especially with built-in phono, is a best-buy
. You would almost be silly not to opt for the phono version, AND use it.

29 August, 2011

Review: JBL 4312A Part I Century Gold

pic: click to enlarge. Note stacked 4312A as well as back of 2 bridged Rotel amps.
Review: JBL 4312A, Century Gold
The day before last, in anticipation of removal, I took out my borrowed pair of JBL 4312A and tested it with the LFD integrated amp. I haven't used it in 6 years, yet it sounded simply wonderful. Before I write my LFD review, I'd like to tell you about my previous experience with this wonderful and under-rated loudspeaker.

JBL 4312A (Official literature here, and here)
The evergreen in the JBL stable and probably the most popular JBL of all time, the 4312 went through several generations, the current revival being the 4312D (mostly for the Japanese and Asian market). The second-generation 4312A sold in huge quantities and could easily be found; many are probably still in active use in studios. It differs from its predecessor in its titanium tweeter. It is precisely this tweeter that caused many to dislike the 4312A. True, if the ancillary equipment is not good, these may "shout"; but with proper care taken these actually produce an open sound.

The other 2 stars in this long tale are 1) the Rotel RB-870BX amp (which I just wrote up here); 2) the Melos 222 full-function preamp, which needs a full article by itself, and which I hope to write up in the near future.

And now, here it is for those who haven't read it, what I wrote several years ago in review33.
JBL 4312A Diary (06/12/05)
I) As you know, I've long been a Klipsch (La Scala) and Tannoy (Gold/Lancaster + Canterbury) user. But I have always wanted to try out Altec and JBL. As a classical devotee, conquering these speakers well known (or well misunderstood) to be tough on classical music would be a good challenge. Of course, one has to sense the potential there. It would indeed be a total waste of time if JBL turns out to be like what one of my friends said, and I quote: "...not designed for reproducing classical music, therefore senseless to force it to do something it is not able to...". As a person who listens to more classicals than most people I'd respectfully disagree.
Sometimes it's a case of contagious disease too. Aside from some hopeless examples around, a few recent outings with the GMC crowd aroused further my interest in JBL and showed JBL is not really a one-dimensional speaker, There is a huge divide between geo024's relaxed and certainly not R&R L300 and loman69's powerfully upfront and definitely R&R 4344. This is partly due to the difference between the speakers themselves, but also partly due to the owner's own preferences and hence matching gears.
The first opportunity came when tubediyer lent me "indefinitely" his father's Century Gold (left pic). They arrived at my house with less than 50 hrs logged. It took quite a while to run in the tweeters a bit, though I'd say they cannot have more than 300 hrs on them now. The 4312A came by fortuitously. When listening to the L300 at geo024's place I had casually mentioned to him that I'd queue up for them should he decided to sell them. Well, it happened and I took it up as I did not know how long the CG would be at my house and I'm into them now.

The widely different sound people achieve means JBL is ultra-sentitive to the way it is used. In real terms, it means it is unforgiving and in general JBLs have an upfront presentation and strings on CDs would usually be the first thing that needs a little taming. This is completely different from Tannoy. It's not easy to make a Tannoy offend (but it surprisingly happens in some hands), but a JBL complains easily.

I personally find playing with both these pairs illuminating. What works with the older 4312A does not necessarily work with the newer CG. What works for Tannoy may not work for JBL. You can say the JBL's are fussy, but they are fun.

II) I now listen to both JBLs alternately.
The tentative choice for CDP right now is the venerable Revox B225. This CDP takes quite a while to warm up. I'm not sure if this professional CDP has the laser on once the power is on, hence I keep the power off, unlike my other CDP, which I keep on indefinitely.

The tube preamp for the moment is still the
Melos 222 with built-in 4-tube phono stage.

The TT is changed. My mellow AN TT-1/silver-RB300/Denon 103 is on loan to sobilly, so right now it is Clearaudio Champion/OL-RB250/Ortophon MC-15-II, of QUITE a different character than before.

When people come, it had to be the CG, as it can play louder with more ease. I just picked up the nearest tube amp, and it is the Copland 501, EL34x2 per channel, hence 35-40 wpc.

I had NEVER previously associated my gears with the word "fast", not to say "extremely fast". But the combo DOES prove to be very fast with JBL CG, and this with 15 ft of interconnect between the preamp and amp!

Another thing I had never really previously regarded as too important is warm-up time. With the Tannoy, this is almost a non-issue. Not so with the CG. Even discounting the source and front end, with the modern Copland, it takes at least half an hour for the sound to settle down. And so a reasonably long visit would get more of the sound than an unduly short one. The owner of the CG, tubediyer and
風鳴 and Wesley+wife are the only ones who have listened for a long stretch of time. With 風鳴 and especially with Wesley and wife we played a large amount of classical music and I believe they were not displeased. With Wesley and wife we actually listened to almost 4-5 hours of classical music. At the very start they DID find it slightly sharp, but by the middle of the period, Wesley commented that any trace of sharpness was gone and we just continued to play LP after LP.

When I am by myself, I continue to listen to the 4312A. The same amp does not quite work nearly as well as the ICL 300B amp. The 300B gives a good degree of cleanliness and is just sufficient for personal listening. Last night I played a Mozart symphony, a Martinu quartet, a Kogan Beethoven, and only in Mahler's 4th did I encounter outright clipping and had to turn down the volume one notch. The 300B does not give that much bass but it does give a high quality bass, ans so the bass passages had surprising speed and depth for 8 watts. No, I did not find any of the stuff too lean.
III) The most important thing is not to please everyone immediately. That is impossible.

What I'd like to do is to set some immediate goals, come up with an agenda for the immediate future and envision the next step. Through the journey I hope some people will be surprised.

As a serious Tannoy user, for me to do this is actually sort of a funny thing, sort of
以茅攻盾。But I think that's the fun. I could not care less for which one is better for what.

I think I have achieved already my immediate goals. To actually make the JBL sound reasonably balanced and coherent in that it can show its strong points and yet cope with more demanding classicals.

The second step is to further refine the system. As I've said before, getting my vintage amps back in action would be beneficial I'd think. Slowing down the sound a tad would inch it towards even more balanced classical playback. But it would never be the Tannoy presentation, not that I'd want it to be.

The important thing with the new experience here is to really probe for new insights. I must say here JBL has already made me look at classical playback with a different eye. And that is all to the good.
IV) My friend BenYC asked: "...Many people say I like JBL sound, I like planar sound, I like horn sound.... Ultimately, we choose equipment based on our own preference. However, the ultimate goal is to make the sound closest to the live music...If the above is true, should we pursue the tasteless direction? If I can hear planar sound or dome sound or horn sound, does this indeed means the system is not being faithful? (Many people do relate tasteless to sterile or even unmuscial. This I cannot agree..."

Interesting question, but only for those more objective, like you, and I'd say myself.

Personally, I think there is NOT AT ALL anything that comes close to the perfect transducer. BUT I think there are many approaches that reveal a substantial part of the truth.

The important thing is to recognize what each approach does right. If each approach does not have some success it would long be obsolete, no? Failing to do that is not to learn, and I'm profoundly disturbed by the fact that this is the case with a lot of people.

Let's say, if you REALLY know what's the real horn sound, it'd paradoxically let you appreciate planars, electrostatics and other competent designs. On the contrary, if you appreciate planars and electrostatics, maybe you'd not be resistant to horn sound.

The word "horn" arouses the most primitive of sentiments. Every person who comments on "horn sound", even those who possess horn speakers, think they know what it s, but is that true? I'd say not.

For me, horns, when done properly, deliver a true allusion to a live event as no other speaker can. Anyone who says otherwise is suspect in my book.

The real question is, can other approaches SOMETIMES do that? The answer is yes. The ESL has this ability with certain things. JBL's too, when done right.

I think the important thing is to let the system reproduce the "LIVE" atmosphere (not the same as hifi parameters like imaging) appropriate to the recording.

I do believe in neutrality. What gives the "live" feel is neutrality. What most people refer to as neutrality is just gibberish. If you do not know music, you do not know neutrality.

An analogy can be made to my recent change of TT/cartridge. Having used the Denon DL-103 for a LONG time, it was a REAL shock to change to the Ortofon MC-15-II. It was almost like changing from comfortable Tannoy overnight to forward JBL! That was initially a thoroughly disheartening experience. But running in the cartridge and experimenting with the input impedance gradually paid dividend. The Ortofon will NEVER sound like the Denon, but if you ask me now, I am no longer sure at all which one is better. I like them both.

At this point, I am pretty sure that JBL's classical playback had been severely distorted and sabotaged by audiophiles, and I personally see great potential, even with my humble models.

My goal is precisely to TRY to show to those objective enough that JBL CAN play classicals like Tannoy and Klipsch and maybe Altec too. Not everyone will agree, but that's a clear goal. Mind you, I want to do this without sacrificing too much of the traditionally strong points of the JBL.

What's up next besides vintage amps deserves scrutiny. On the one hand I'm thinking of upgrading, but my space limitations (no, I'm not going to get rid of the Tannoys) cannot tolerate anything bigger than 4425. I can also get a SECOND pair of 4312A and play them together. This would be very interesting as there would be many permutations. Of course, if tubediyer leaves the CG in my home indefinitely I'd put all those plans on hold. But he says he has BBSM-6 and TAD's coming to my place.......did I hear right?
TUNING UP - Enter the Subwoofer
Before reporting on the event yesterday, let me linger a bit on the background and prequels.
After tubediyer cruelly took away his father's Century Gold, I felt bereavement. In mourning and in memoriam, the JBL 4312A came down from perching horizontally on top of its cousin to sit straight on a a pair of low stands (~14", spikeless on tile floor). They are roughly in the middle of the room, approximately 6' apart and 7.5 ft from my ears, which are about 1' from the rear balcony door/curtains. The tweeters are on the outside and quite a bit below ear level. A small degree of toe-in was employed.

At first sound was somewhat lackluster, but with average day-to-day listening they just opened up more. I listened mostly to classicals. For late night listening alone I used my Japanese ICL 300B SETA. When I wanted more volume or when people came over, I used my Copland 501 (6CA7 PP, amp) which just happened to be around. For the last few years the majority of my listening was done using SE triode amps and my vintage PP amps, no doubt suitable for JBL, are collecting dust. The only vintage one that I tried was the lowly Fisher X-101-C (7591 PP integrated amp) which once performed beautifully with the K2-9800 and which works superbly well with my own Tannoy Canterbury. However, in the case of 4312A it seemed to offer no real advantage. In all of these cases, the sound was a little sluggish.

Recently my two Rotel 870BX came back and I gave it a listen with the 4312A. I liked what I heard, mainly the evenness and the good speed, so I ran it in. I also tried bridging but did not quite like the little bit of coarsening, so I stayed with just one. Supposedly this vintage ss amp has a lot of Black Gate caps inside! Built in

Bit by bit, I felt the sound has improved to the point that I'd invite some other close hifi
惡客 friends to come listen. Last Saturday, they came over and and I thank them for helping to deliver a cheap JBL subwoofer, curiously named Digital 12, to my place. A list of gears used:

Digital 1-Revox B225 (CDM0-TDA1540-14bit)/Gotham GAC-2
Digital 2-Revox C221 (CDM4-Delta-Sigma)/balanced adaptor/Gotham GAC-2
Analogue-Clearaudio Champion/Origin Live RB250 basic mod/Ortofon MC15-II
Preamp-Melos 222 MC/MM 2-chassis hybrid preamp/Gotham GAC-2
Amp-Rotel 870BX (100 wpc)/MIT Terminator 4 , used singly or bridged
Amp 2-Copland 501 Speaker Cable-Gotham 50025

A Fostex 900A was used with a 0.22 generic cap and a resistor. The tweeter level was turned quite down.

When I listened to the 4312A alone this setup more or less sounded balanced, with just a hint of aggressiveness in the notorious Titanium tweeter at high levels. I like to play at concert hall level, so when the big guys came and the balcony door were opened and the curtains pulled, the fault of the tweeter was magnified.

I forgot to mention that we played with the cheap subwoofer too. Due to lack of space, it was placed in mid-room and fired towards the right. Via the line input (preamp out into MIT Terminator 5) I thought the preamp lost something due to the added load. But the little bit of added bass on the bottom added a little weight and helped clarify and smooth out the treble a little. Matching was surprisingly OK and X'over point appeared to be the higher the better (50-150Hz)!
TUNING UP - Further Tweaks
As I knew limage was going to pay a visit, I spent a few hours the next day tweaking for an even larger crowd. I made a few changes:
-the interconnect between the preamp and amp was changed from Gotham to a DIY WE-era tin-plated thin cable, which was most effective in eliminating some treble harshness.

-some blue-tack was applied to the metal grill of the tweeter, an outer circle and a "nipple".

-the cap of the supertweeter was changed from generic to vintage Russian. The difference, not profound with the La Scala, was instantly audible as a little more suppleness. Then I switched to the Aurum Cantus G3, which was only recently returned to me. the change was instantly noticeable too and I favored the G3.

-Another digital system was put into service: Theta Basic/AMP AT&T cable/Genesis Digital Lens/Gotham digital cable/Audio Note DAC-2 old version (PCM63-6922 buffer)/DIY-Sumitomo. The DAC is high-output and previously was not at all suitable for the 4312A.

-Bridged Rotels were tried again, and this time with great success. Yes, a little coarsening, but not unacceptably so.

-the subwoofer connection was changed to high level, which meant connection with a generic speaker cable.

After all of that, I thought the sound improved quite a bit more and that was the system I used for the next day.

All this is preface to the main event. My friend Gingers, now a 3/5A user, has a pair of 4312A stacked away forlornly in a corner, neglected for years on end; I asked to borrow them.
Monday morning Gingers, rcwy and limage came with the delivery. Last minute additions were sokps and my Chinese-in-heart gweilo and fellow 4312A user friend Mark, aka "Sparky" in the pre-R33 days of "Audioboard". They arrived at 11 am! Military precision and superb organization!

We fiddled with said system, driving single 4312A + G3 super + little bit of sub, till
1 pm. The high-frequency stress was much reduced but I am sure a little remained, but my very crazy and funny guests survived. All agreed the little bit of sub was an enhancement.

We broke for lunch, a welcome respite for endless replays of Mahler Symphony #5! We had used "Night on
Bald Mountain", Nils Lofgren, Manger Test CD, Pat Metheny, etc etc, and a bit of silence was more than welcome.

After lunch, we stacked them. The height meant we left the "supertweeter" disconnected. As soon as we hit the play button, we were stunned. There was just so much more body to the thing and everything acquired a new gravitas. It was judged the subwoofer was redundant. The treble might not have been perfect, but their inadequacies were much camouflaged. I wondered whether things became a tad slower, but there was no going back.

The speakers did behave like big speakers. An amazing experience way beyond my/our imagination.

I'm sure there's more to be done and learned. I am also sure there's no one way to play with things. I am a classically oriented person, and JBL never came as a first thought, but there are always things to learn and it has been great fun.
Now, what I really would like to talk about. First, the JBLs.

-The arrangement is almost like a D'Appolito array, some people's favorite design used in quite a number of hi-end speakers, including the image-capable Proac response 3, 4 etc. I believe the array not only adds height but the upper woofer's proximity to the ceiling enhances greatly bass dynamics.

-An observation. Many times hung speakers like those in CD shops give very good and full sound. My single-pair 4312A actually sounded a bit better in some ways when perched (horizontally) on top of the Century Golds just a while back.

-The 4312A's have been designed to be smaller monitors and free from colorations acquired from placement as they also had to be used in near-field situation. This makes them, unlike some others, a good candidate for this kind of placement.

-The single-pair 4312A's singular fault is stress at high volume. The stacked ones augmented most noticeably the lower midrange and midbass, which of course also made the treble less prominent. The corollary is, the single-pair 4312A needs additional bass weight. And I believe this is also the problem with "G-spotting" older Tannoys. The Tannoys are not designed to be near-field. Shall we stack the Golds one day?

-This way of speaker placement actually minimizes the difference in speakers. The "pinpoint imaging" takes over and the Maggies, JBLs and even Golds (though less successful in bass) begin to sound alike. Some would call this neutrality but there's a bit of the artificial in that.
For the Future I'd like to try:

-Take out the tweeters, somehow fix them right in the middle of the stack and make a true D'Appolito out of them.

-Stacked but HORIZONTAL. I believe these would sound different but just as good.

-"Dipole" them. One firing backwards. May have to move them a bit along the axis.
A little praise from limage:
"...The JBL 4312A was indeed astonishing for the volume it actually managed to pump out from the 3 drivers that are as moderate as their enclosure. The sound was crisp and fast, with surprising presence that was most appropriate with pop and jazz work. But the biggest surprise did not come until we had Gingers’ pair stacked inversely on top of the existing pair. It was instantly transformed into a mammoth of considerable potency and authority, emulous of all rivals of the most exotic and expensive species. And the amp driving this column of JBL was nothing more than a cheap old solid state Rotel !

The stacked 4312 must be ranked among the best of the best JBLs I have ever heard until today..."

Review: Rotel RB-870BX Amplifier

The day before last, in anticipation of removal, I took out my borrowed pair of JBL 4312A and tested it with the LFD integrated amp. I haven't used it in 6 years, yet it sounded simply wonderful. Before I write my LFD review, I'd like to tell you about my previous experience with this wonderful and under-rated loudspeaker. But first, let me introduce you to of this unassuming vintage stereo amplifier, life of the party.

pic of the innards from the internet (here). pic at the bottom of the article is from audioreview (here)

Review: Rotel RB-870BX amp (official literature here)
The RB-870BX is a 100 wpc stereo amp that doubles the power into 4 ohms (2 ohm not rated). It can be bridged via a small switch at the back (though you have to be careful about the speaker cable connection), and rated at 300 wpc into 8 ohm. Look at the impressive power transformer and bank of lytic caps, of good quality. My friend 300B123 once commented on the excellent components inside, deeming it a great candidate for DIY mods to take it to another level. While it may not be an absolute paradigm of high-current amplifier, it is no slouch and phenomenal value for money. I am sure its many cousins are similarly worthwhile.

One thing, the manuals used to be all available on Rotel's website, but doesn't seem so now (model is listed, but clicking it draws a blank), so download asap from other sources or cached copies if you are interested.

Rotel History
A diversion. Despite the internet, the true history of Rotel the company has been buried almost beyond excavation. The current official website, inferior to the old one, says nothing about the company's history, and reflects the superficiality of our age.

Here's something from the internet (2002): "...According to the Rotel site, the company was formed in 1961 by the "elder" Tachikowa and currently run by the son, Bob Tachikowa (one slight variation that I did come across was an audio site that listed the company as being founded in 1961 "by a Japanese audiophile" and then adopted by the Tachikowa family in 1979)...Tachikowa's address is listed as the Rotel offices in Japan but all research and design are driven out of the UK (and mfg out of Hong Kong)....So while Rotel could ceremonially be called a Japanese company, operationally its a UK company..."

A note from Taiwan's Audio Art magazine: "...
談 起Rotel的歷史,它原本 是六○年時期的英國製造廠商,成立初期就建立了良好的名聲,不過在七○年代末期一度瀕臨倒閉,幸好有了日本資金以及繼任總裁兼工程師Tony Mills加入,Rotel這個品牌才得以起死回生。1982年對Rotel來說非常重要,因為他們藉由一系列不同於以往的產品設計,開始受到市場的注 意,並且慢慢的穩住經營腳步。雖然Rotel已非昔日的純英資公司,但是其設計理念並不因為日資進入而有所改變,反而在品質控管上更加嚴謹,造就了 Rotel在保持傳統英國味道之外,還使得品質更加提昇;再加上合宜的價格,使得Rotel在中低價位市場上佔有一定的地位。..." Basically, the author implies the company was originally UK, but received infusion of Japanese capital in the 70's.

From another Chinese site: "...Rotel成立於1961年7月1日,但剛開始並非以Rotel為品牌,直到1969年才開始正式以Rotel為商標推出音響製品。由於早期 Rotel的英國經銷商推廣產品十分成功,許多人以為Rotel是英國品牌,但實際上Rotel總部位於日本東京。Rotel早期產品以擴大機與CD唱盤 等兩聲道音響為主,外觀平實但性能出眾,是公認「物超所值」的音響首選之一。目前Rotel的產品線已拓展到家庭劇院的領域。.."

It took a search of "Rotel + Tony Mills" to uncover what I think is the Definitive Rotel History as related in the website of Lyric HiFi USA, and I quote: "...The only Japanese electronics firm anywhere near its age still owned by its founding family and run by a family member, Rotel has operated continuously since the late 1950s, when it was Sylvania’s TV distributor in Japan.

By the 1960s, founder Tomiko Tachikawa was focusing on audio and building products for blue-chip U.S. hi-fi companies, including Harman-Kardon, H.H. Scott and Marantz, all of which had found Japan a cost-efficient source for reliable products.

The first Rotel-branded units appeared in 1969, but for various business considerations the firm continued manufacturing for other companies. As a result, when Consumer Reports magazine awarded an early Rotel-badged receiver a Best Buy rating back in 1973, it also gave high marks to two American-branded units that few people knew had been built in the same factory.

!!!Rotel maintained an especially long and fruitful relationship with Adcom and manufactured that firm’s GFP-400 tuner/preamp, its GFP-555/565 preamps and its GFA-535/545/555 power amp series. High end aficionados today consider those units classics.!!! I didn't know that!

When the first Rotel-branded hi-fi products came to market, Western consumers were reluctant to buy any gear identifiable as Japanese, but Mike Bartlett, now the firm’s vice president and general manager, had a solution for that problem. Mike, a fervent hi-fi fan since boyhood, joined Rotel in his native England in 1979. He was soon collaborating with a fellow British audiophile on an amplifier design project that would make Rotel a recognized high end brand.

That effort made perfect sense to Bob Tachikawa, the company founder’s son and Rotel’s current president, who is also a high fidelity enthusiast. Though born and bred in Japan, Bob had an in-depth understanding of the American audiophile market, gained during his student days at the University of Virginia, where he earned an engineering degree, and afterward during a four year stint at Rotel’s New York office. The muscle car he owned back then underscores his love of high-performance products: a Dodge Charger R/T, the vehicle used by the assassins who pursue Steve McQueen’s Mustang during the movie Bullitt’s classic chase scene.

As for Mike Bartlett’s design collaborator, Tony Mills, he had modified a mainstream Japanese receiver, the performance of which stunned Mike. If Tony could make a mass market unit sound so good, what could he do with a Rotel amp?

The audiophile pair decided to find out and, with Bob Tachikawa’s blessing, worked many a late night before completing a prototype for what would become the Rotel 820B amplifier, a unit that raised eyebrows when it was introduced three decades ago.

Tony Mills spent the next 15 years developing highly successful CD players for Rotel before retiring. At that point, another UK designer, Robert Burn, took up the torch and has since been refining the company’s audiophile units from his base in England.

I highly commend Lyric HiFi for this article, showing, despite their hi-end image, they care about even the details of the smaller guys. In comparison, the official website has completely cleansed itself of anything that smacks of the Japanese, in the interest of prestige and sales perhaps? Shame!

My Units
For a pittance, I got my first RB-870BX bundled together with its matching preamp, the RC-870BX (official literature here). While the preamp is quite nice, it really is not the match of a decent tube preamp (what is!). It does have a decent MM/MC phono section that should be the equal of many of today's cheaper outboard phonoamps.

It is the RB-870BX amp that is the star. It is rather modern sounding: fast and detailed. I noticed the mono bridging feature and decided to get a second one to try it out, and am I glad I did!

In the coming article on the JBL 4312A there would be some description of the amp used in both stereo and bridged modes.

27 August, 2011

Welcome back Robin, we'll be missing you!

click pics to enlarge
Welcome back Robin, we'll be missing you!

The Yumcha Diary: 27-08-11
Talk Vinyl: Garrard 301 Reborn Part II
Talk Vinyl: Ortofon AS-212S

Some good news. My friend, make that our friend, Robin the hairy Scot, just got back to Hong Kong and is to stay for a week or so. I met him yesterday after yumcha. As you can see from the pic, Robin had lost some weight, but is still robust.

His building is undergoing extensive outer-wall renovation now, and is wrapped around by scaffolding. Fragments of concrete showered down amid the afternoon storm. Due to the construction, the air-con could not be used, but we were happy chatting away with just a small fan providing a modicum of comfort.

The bad news (for us) is, Robin shall permanently re-locate to Taipei. Moving back is probably a more apt description, as Robin's wife is Taiwanese, and an old friend of mine from NYC days. Sometime this week professionals shall be packing up their flat, including the hifi items, Yamaha's, ARC, Garrard, McIntosh and all. Oh, how I shall miss the Otari! All this has nothing to do with his illness; indeed it had been planned long before.

The couple had just bought a house perched high on beautiful and surprisingly wild 陽明山, with panoramic views of the 淡水河 and harbor. I was quite impressed by pics of the house, which is undergoing massive renovation. The cavernous rooftop structure (>1000 sq ft) shall be where the hifi is. I hope I shall have a pic for you soon.

Robin had a big abdominal surgery at the Veteran's Hospital in Taipei, but would need further treatment in the foreseeable future. The illness is likely a chronic one, and I am glad to see Robin is fighting it with the same tenacity he uses to fight for others for most of his professional life.

We were talking about passion in the hifi forum the other day, and I'd like to say a few words on that. To my way of thinking, passion is mostly missing in our hifi people. We have plenty of fanatics, collectors and devotees, but much of the energy is misspent on gears, even electronic parts. Few are passionate about music, the raison d'etre for our hobby. That is why, as I grow older, I am increasingly wary of audiophile home visits, frankly quite boring most of the time. That is also the reason why I have always enjoyed my time with Robin, who literally oozes passion. You can literally feel the heat each time he pulls out a record and introduces it. I shall miss the feeling.

For most of the visit, the music was not on. At the end, we did listen to a couple of cuts on the Garrard, now equipped with the Thomas Schick, which worked beautifully with the Ortofon Kontrapunkt B.

pic of Ortofon arm on my Garrard 301

Thank you again Robin for making my Garrard happen
Robin is such a considerate person. The first thing he said to me when he got back was to make arrangements for the return of my Ortofon AS212S arm, which I had loaned to him prior to the Thomas Schick. Having been a Rega user for the longest time, I had no head shell lying around. So after I got back down through the rain to Central I popped into Avantgarde, bit the bullet and got myself an Ortofon L-9000 head shell. Tony the salesperson is such a professional and always fun to talk to.

Previously, when I got back my Garrard after Robin's restoration, I had trouble with my old Origin Live (basic) modified Rega 250B. One channel was intermittent and I didn't gear up to finding out why. Hence I got to the Kuzma instead and I am glad now that the project is finished, just in time for the Garrard!

This morning I installed the arm on my Garrard 301 that Robin restored for me. I slotted in the Denon DL-103. Gee, finally, my Garrard is up and running in my house. What magnificence, about which you would certainly hear more! Thank you Robin, again!

Greetings from our friends
JCR33: Good to see you back in HK and you look great in the photo. Hope you will have a wonderful time in Taipei and do stay in touch. Taipei has a huge community of audiophiles, you should be able to walk into many there. :-)

icefox: DJ, that's excellent news. Please help to send my regards. Fantastic!

leben: We have not met. Music transcends boundary and somewhere along this transcendental chain is DJ the conduit and his blogs I have had the pleasure of reading about your Yamaha's and few more tit bits. As a fellow health struggler I wish you all the best.

Danz: It's great to see you back and in good shape. I wish I can share some Scottish folk tune with you in future. If time can't work out, hereunder is one of my favourite recently.

22 August, 2011

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 20-08-11 Part II. Tannoy Black

click pic to enlarge

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 20-08-11 Part II. Tannoy Black

A Living Voice, from the Past
At BoyLah's place, I suddenly recalled that we were in the neighborhood of our yumcha friend k.c. I wanted Karma, now a Tannoy user, to listen to k.c.'s system, so we got here in no time.

Our friend k.c. is an audiophile for whom I have the greatest admiration. He is a user of the rare-as-hen's-teeth vintage Tannoy Black (click for Tannoy History), granddaddy of them all really.

In HK I have come across many old Tannoy's, which have a large following here. Unfortunately, most of these vintage aficionados, whose blind belief in "the older the better" borders on superstition, simply get terrible sound out of them. With perhaps just one exception or two, I have never heard normal sound out of the silver's. Occasionally I'd hear a relatively normal pair of Red's. Gold's fare much better; usually the sound is quite nice, ditto units after the HPD.

Which is why I admire k.c. His Black's are now more than 60 years old, and they still sing. They are housed in a "York" style cabinet (only partially shown in the foreground in the pic) which k.c. made. Most DIY cabinets are failures in my experience, and k.c. had modified his cabinet numerous times before success. The important thing is to have the ears to judge, and, unlike most of the vintage crowd here in HK, k.c. did.

Digital: Philips 850 as transport into Softone/ICL Model 2 DAC
Preamp: DIY 6DJ8
Amp 1: DIY massive monoblocks 4x KT66 (or 6GB8 or whatever) parallel PP.
Amp 2: DIY SE amp EF37 driver; pentode or 300B switchable.
Amp 3: Fisher 101 EL84 integrated amp modified to triode operation (not heard on this day)
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Black in DIY "York" cabinets

k.c.'s DIY preamp and big monoblocks have had many years of service. I dug up and translated what I wrote in October of 2006, when some vintage people took what they regarded as the best in vintage, Fisher 400-CX-2, Leak 12.1 and Pilot 232 for a match. The results were not at all what they had hoped for. My observations on k.c.'s DIY combo and his system still hold true.

很愉快的一天! 90% 中肯報道 (10% 保留, 以免太過得罪人!)

A joyful day! I report here the honest truth, save 10% for the sake of not offending certain people!

沒有任何挑戰者可以勝出主人家改了三極的 Fisher 101 EL84 合併。Fisher 400-CX-2 + Leak 12.1 也敗下陣來。前者活潑生動, 後者有點遲暮.

My observations: In this session, the Fisher 101 EL84 integrated amp (modified to triode) reigned supreme; nothing could touch it. It was manifestly superior to even the combo of Fisher 400-CX-2 + Leak 12.1. The former was sparkling in its delivery; the latter was just duller.

-主人家 DIY 6DJ8 /6GB8 稍呆, 不及 Fisher 400-CX-2/DIY 6GB8 , 也不及 DIY 6DJ8 /Leak 12.1 後。

The DIY combo of 6DJ8 preamp and 6GB8 monoblocks was just a little plain together. Instead, the DIY preamp matched better with Leak 12.1 whereas the DIY amp matched better with Fisher 400-CX-2.

-Fisher 400-CX-2/Pilot 232 DIY 6DJ8 /Leak 12.1 都很大力, 全面, 不相伯仲。 但五極 EL84 不及三極, 所以就算 DIY 6DJ8 稍緊我個人還是會選三極的 Leak 12.1 (配合 DIY 6DJ8, 不是 Fisher 400-CX-2)

In terms of driving power and all rounded performance, the combo of Fisher 400-CX-2/Pilot 232 went head to head with DIY 6DJ8 preamp/Leak 12.1, but even if the DIY preamp sounded a little tight I'd choose the latter combo (no Fisher preamp for me) simply because EL84 sounded better in triode.

聽不到 Leak 12.1 應有的 「了了下」之聲。 但重申, Fisher 101 EL84 三極 「了了下」之聲, 「起碼在這系統」不在以前聽過 Leak 12.1 「了了下」聲之下 (包括 Ginger rcwy) 這是驚人的, 也是真正的驚喜!

That je ne sais quoi magic that the Leak 12.1 should have eluded us on this day. But we were compensated by hearing the same quality (if not more) in the Fisher 101, and that was a wonderful surprise!

-「這一對」Black ! 主人亦是有耳之人! 主人家極少聽古典, 但用 Fisher 101 古典重播令人咋舌!

This is a good pair of vintage Tannoy. The host does not listen much to classics, but the performance of the Fisher 101 in classical replay was simply wonderful!

k.c. then switched on his DIY SE amp, rolled various EL34s and briefly demo'ed the 300B. The SE EL34 sounded pretty good and I preferred it to the big monoblocks, but the 300B certainly under-performed and did not have the usual magic. I don't think k.c. has as yet gotten the full measure of this tube.

Although we did not hear the Fisher 101 on this day, I still have to say that sound remain the best in this system.